The Racially Fraught History of the American Beard

Sean Trainor, The Atlantic, January 20, 2014


What follows is the lost story of American facial hair. Like countless other histories, it is rife with contradictions. It begins with white Americans at the time of the Revolution who derided barbering as the work of “inferiors.” It continues with black entrepreneurs who turned it into a source of wealth and prestige. And it concludes with the advent of the beard—a fashion born out of desperation but transformed into a symbol of masculine authority and white supremacy.


It may seem strange that barbering, which required practitioners to hold razors to their customers’ throats, was dominated by men of color in Revolutionary America. But the reasons for this were simple. Before the American Revolution, free white workers were few and their labor was expensive—especially in the southern colonies. So slaveholders in need of grooming often turned to their enslaved workforces.

After the Revolution, a different set of factors compelled African-Americans to work as barbers. In a new country that prized personal independence, service work seemed abhorrent to many white citizens. At the same time, the Revolution caused many Americans to rethink the morality of slavery, which led to emancipation in the Northern states and waves of manumission in the South.

Thus, thousands of former slaves—many with experience as valets, manservants, and barbers—were foisted upon a market that offered them little in the way of employment, apart from dangerous jobs in manual labor and demanding positions in household service. One of the few jobs that presented even faint hopes for prosperity was barbering. Not surprisingly, it was open almost exclusively to men.

Barbering was hard work. High-end barbers labored long hours and mastered a range of skills from shaving, cutting, and styling to making and marketing hair and body products. Barbers also typically made and repaired wigs. Even after elites abandoned the powdered wigs of the colonial era around 1800, barbers continued to do a healthy business in toupees as well as false whiskers, although they now fitted these in discreet side rooms. They even groomed the dead.

But barbers’ most difficult work was cultural in nature. Especially in the upscale venues for which African-American barbers were best known, customers demanded a high level of gentility from their surroundings. Thus, barbers were also expected to excel as interior decorators. The best of these shops were what historian Douglas Walter Bristol, Jr., author of Knights of the Razor, a painstaking history of African-American barbers, called “first-class.” And they looked much as their modern imitators reimagine them.

Barbers cultivated personae to match these surroundings. Refined in dress and graceful in movement, the best offered practical instruction in the gentlemanly arts. They were also expert conversationalists, engaging and entertaining their customers while they worked. {snip}


But appearance and conversation were just the tip of the iceberg. One of the barbers’ most vexing tasks involved maintaining order in their segregated workplaces. While the gentility of many shops helped restrain customers’ worst behavior, lapses were frequent. In moments like these, white patrons might squabble over politics, grow belligerent when “full of drink and insolence,” or even light each other’s hair on fire.

Keeping the peace required the lightest of touches. The laws of white supremacy—both written and unwritten—effectively forbade men of color from giving orders to customers or physically restraining them. Besides, many barbers understood the cruel reality that customers’ ability to flagrantly disrespect them was part of the space’s appeal.


That barbers successfully navigated these situations speaks to their discretion and grace—though many of America’s most-influential free people of color often proved harsh critics. Frederick Douglass, for example, wrote a scathing critique of the tonsorial profession in an 1853 edition of Frederick Douglass’ Paper: “To shave half a dozen faces in the morning and sleep or play the guitar in the afternoon–all this may be easy, but is it noble, is it manly, and does it improve and elevate us?”

Despite these criticisms, a number of 19th-century barbers parlayed their work into economic independence, and in a few cases, investments that brought them extraordinary wealth. In a number of U.S. cities, African-American barbers ranked among the richest and most powerful members of the free black community. By 1879, James Thomas, a former St. Louis barber who had become a real estate mogul, possessed an estate worth $400,000 (some $10 million in contemporary terms), making him the richest man of color in Missouri. His friend and neighbor, another former barber named Cyprian Clamorgan, was similarly affluent, penning a paean to black wealth and respectability entitled The Colored Aristocracy of St. Louis.

Barbers were also figures of considerable influence. Despite Douglass’s criticisms, barbers occupied positions of authority in African-American organizations. They accounted for 13 of 45 delegates to Ohio’s 1852 African-American state convention. Boston barber John Smith welcomed Massachusetts antislavery Senator Charles Sumner into his shop. And countless others played humbler but crucial roles in churches and community organizations.


White men’s fondness for their black barbers didn’t last. The reasons were varied: The temperance movement and the evangelical religious revivals of the “Second Great Awakening” caused many customers to frown upon the barbershop’s liquor-fueled conviviality.

A series of urban public health crises also had dire consequences for the shop. {snip}

The most important explanation for whites’ anxiety about the shop, however, involved black barbers’ growing wealth. For many, the success of leading African-American barbers seemed to threaten the social order. As white customers were shaved by men with fortunes worth many thousands of dollars, some must have wondered who was serving whom.


White fears were further fed by a string of slave rebellions, from present-day Haiti to Nat Turner’s Virginia. For many whites, these seemed to confirm not the injustice of slavery but blacks’ “innate” propensity for violence. As a result, some white customers began to cast a wary eye on their barbers, who commanded resources and occupied positions of authority within their communities. Few seemed better poised to lead an insurrection.

These fears were made powerfully manifest in American fiction, where the figure of the murderous black barber became a fixture during the 19th century. Among the character’s more vivid appearances was a little-known 1847 vignette entitled “A Narrow Escape,” in which a wandering sailor enters an Alabama barbershop and watches helplessly as the shop’s barber slashes the throat of a customer. But the figure also appeared in better-known works of fiction, including Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno.

The results of these fears were dramatic. Between the turn of the century and 1850, American elites abandoned black-owned barbershops in considerable numbers. In major American cities, the number of barbers relative to the populations they served declined dramatically, as demand for their services plummeted. Ambitious young African-American men began to view barbering as a dead-end career.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the social spectrum, immigrant barbers—many of them Germans—catered to a growing population of working-class customers: men too poor, and in many cases too resentful of black barbers’ success, to patronize the best black-owned barbershops. Thus, while whites, according to Douglas Bristol, constituted a mere 20 percent of Philadelphia’s barbers in 1850, by 1860 they represented a near majority. A handful of elite black barbers continued to prosper, but the days when African-Americans dominated the trade were coming to an end.


At the same time black barbers were falling out of favor, many elite white men were radically changing their views on grooming. Where the enlightened 18th century had favored a civilized, clean-shaven look, men of the mid-19th century preferred the untamed appearance of the rugged conqueror. But while facial hair ultimately became a potent symbol of mastery, it didn’t start out that way. If anything, men first adopted beards in a desperate attempt to alleviate the painfulness of their morning toilet.

Without the assistance of their former barbers, shavers had to contend with the 19th-century straight razor. A delicate and temperamental tool, its paper-thin blade required regular, careful maintenance. Even the simplest misstep could ruin it, turning the morning shave into a tug-of-war between men and their facial hair. Still, this was preferable to the alternatives. Men were known to die of tetanus after using an ill-kept blade—Henry David Thoreau’s brother John was one of them. And many lived in fear of cutting their own throats.


The beards of the mid-1800s were different from earlier styles of facial hair, including the mutton chops sported by Presidents John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren. They were more unruly than the waxed mustaches and “wreath beards” of the 1820s, trends that had been inspired by the French aristocrat Count d’Orsay. Mid-19th-century facial hair was big and robust, reflecting a near-total independence from scissors and razor.

At first, these untamed beards proved controversial. Many Americans continued to harbor 18th-century fears that beards marked maniacs, fanatics, and dissimulators. But by the late antebellum period, they were more widely accepted, thanks partly to a strenuous public relations campaign that reimagined the beard as a symbol of white, masculine supremacy.

A 21-part series in Boston’s Daily Evening Transcript, published in late 1856, was typical of such efforts. In these wide-ranging articles, pro-beard polemicists argued that the beard represented a rugged and robust ideal of manhood, proving white Americans’ dominion over “lesser” men and “inferior” races. The pseudonymous “Lynn Bard,” for instance, claimed that men took up shaving “when they began to be effeminate, or when they became slaves.” Ancient Britain’s manly Anglo-Saxons, he claimed, “wore their beards before the conquest; and it is related as a wanton act of tyranny, that William the Conqueror compelled the people to shave; but some abandoned their country” rather than submit. (Incidentally, Victorian Englishmen were going through a beard revival of their own at that time, though for different reasons.)

An anonymous “lady on beards,” writing in an 1856 issue of the New York Tribune, made the case even more succinctly. The “bearded races,” she proclaimed, “are the conquering races.” And in “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman transformed the case for beards into poetry: “Washes and razors for foofoos . . . for me freckles and a bristling beard.”

These appeals were especially persuasive at a time when America was in an active period of exploration and invasion, ranging from the U.S.-Mexican War to the ongoing Indian relocation and genocide. These projects were aimed primarily at peoples whom white Americans believed to be incapable of growing facial hair.

But the “manly appendage,” as one commenter grandly called the beard, also served a number of important functions closer to home. As historian Sarah Gold McBride contends, beards were one response to a growing women’s rights movement, typified by the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. Faced with threats to their prerogative, men grew beards “to codify a distinctly maleappearance when other traditional markers of masculinity were no longer stable or certain.” The 19th-century beard may have sprouted from a fear of razors and a distaste for black barber shops. But it grew into a symbol that set white American men apart from smooth-faced foreigners as well as powerful women at home.


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  • D.B. Cooper

    Hmmm. To beard, or not to beard? That is the question.

    • NM156

      The Zepsters had a bearded phase too. The look reminds me of the Boomer drug zombies my grandmother warned me about in my ’70s childhood.

      • Lagerstrom

        Christalmighty! Bonham looks like the most sensible one!

      • Sangraal

        Robert Plant looks like a true viking there (from the neck up anyway…ignore the girly shirt).

    • Oil Can Harry

      Obama should get rid of his beard.

      I mean I’m just so tired of Michelle.

    • Lagerstrom

      It got hairy around 1970, then less-hairy at the end of the 70s.

  • Time to grow a beard.

    • NeanderthalDNA

      There’s a good one…

      On a very bad one!

      • Didn’t we find that guy hiding in a spider hole?

        • NeanderthalDNA

          Craziest peckerwood in the UK. “Charles Bronson”, deranged limey career violent prisoner. Wiki him if you don’t know the story, or watch the Tom Hardy biopic, “Bronson” on Netflix.

          Among other exploits he married a Bangladeshi divorcee (?) while behind bars and converted for a short time to Islam. Now an apostate, she referred to him as a “racist thug” after their divorce. Doubt he fears muzzie reprisal for his apostasy.

          Strangely enough, despite all his incredibly theatrical violent outbursts he’s never actually killed anybody, though he came close to strangling a convicted child rapist-murderer while incarcerated in a hospital for the criminally insane (something he should have gotten time OFF for, had he succeeded, in my opinion).

          Quite a character.

          • Your reply has made me realize that’s not a fake beard.
            Reading about UK Muslim inmates is pretty depressing, I’ve recently read about kriss Donald’s killer Imran “Baldy” Shahid , being buffed from weights and trying to sue the British tax payer over human rights breaches, while showing the usual lack of remorse for his horrific race murder crime.

            Ben Kinsella’s killer Jade Braithwaite using Facebook to taught his victim’s family or Jimmy Mizen’s killer Jake Fahri again on social media flashing gang signs and bragging about how easy prison is with a playstation, color TV and girlie magazines in the background.
            Then there’s Sgt Blackman the 6’3 British commando who’s been sentenced to 10 years in a (70% Muslim) British civilian prison for killing a fatally wounded Taliban insurgent,with the incident caught on a squad mates helmet camera.
            We’re just as soft down here.
            I’ll read about Mr Bronson after posting this thanks.

          • Sangraal

            That business with Sgt. Blackman was truly absurd. Send Britons off to fight and die in pointless wars, then prosecute them for killing the enemy. Unbelievable. It was more a mercy-killing than a murder – he put the wounded insurgent out of his misery. Meanwhile it costs the taxpayer £7 million to deport Abu Qutada, and Anjem Choudhury walks the streets preaching terror.

          • I can’t imagine the sense of betrayal Sgt Blackman must feel when sitting in his civilian prison cell, surrounded by mad Muslims.
            I wonder if they’ll lock him in the same prison as drummer Rigby’s killers?
            I wonder how many hip celebrities are going to campaign for his release like they’ve done for black criminals like Mumia Abu-Jamal, Nelson Mandela, Stanley Tookie Williams, Herman Wallace and Rubin Hurricane Carter and so on.
            The Sgt Blackman situation is just more proof of how our current leaders are just pig like traitors.

          • Just to add, part of the fallout from the police shooting of the ex ‘accused’ murderer, and known to armed drug dealer/thug Mark Duggan, whose death was the catalyst for the 2011 London riots.
            British (tactical?) police will now have to wear helmet cameras too now.
            Diverse lifeforms become so precious, at least once it reaches the West.

  • Ronald

    In a more enlightened era, any “historian” who would concoct “stories” such as this would be suspected of being afflicted with schizophrenia. Yet, in today’s perverse world, he is seen as “educated”. Are the politicians wasting the money they are spending to support Government schools?

    • So CAL Snowman

      It’s like these people go out of their way to prove how insane they are. Beards were a sign of White supremacy because of Whites disdain for black barbers? So I guess disposable razors are racist?

    • John Ulfsson

      Any field of study in academia today not firmly anchored by laws, numbers and mathematics is tainted. History, sociology, philosophy, even anthropology has been severely tainted by ideology and political bias.

      • NeanderthalDNA

        Amen…it’s all a self filtering crypto-Marxist mandarin trouble making profession.

        High grade make-work for the destroyers of civilization.

        Seriously…when this is the best one can come up with in one’s field, or even the standard…might that field have reached it’s limit in terms of what can be contributed?

    • sbuffalonative

      I haven’t read this article because I didn’t want to read contrived and speculative history. Instead, I jumped right to the comments.

      Academics and writers are always looking for a hook; a new perspective on history or current events. It’s less about facts and history than it is about building name recognition by making outrageous claims.

  • 48224

    All the hipsters around here are growing beards. I guess they see the athletes growing them, so the hipsters copy. Writers are constantly looking for nonsense to write about, noticed the beards are back…thus this story. Simple as that.

    • NM156

      The athletes copied the hipsters though. Here in Chicago-and in other big-city hipster enclaves-the brotherhood of the beard was brought in from the rural areas and small towns of their origin. I posit that new hipsters, confronted with big city metrosexuals and homosexuals, ran with the bearded look, consciously or unconsciously, to differentiate themselves from them.

      • r j p

        The metros and hipsters in Chicago are a beard hair away from being homosexuals.

        • NM156

          A guy who looks like James Clerk Maxwell should get some credit for avoiding a queer look, however…xD

    • JDInSanD

      I think it has a lot to do with Duck Dynasty.

      • NM156

        DD is new. The Brotherhood goes back years further in hipsterized cities.

  • Diana Moon Glampers

    Husband has a beard. I imagine many conscious women like that look. Very masculine.

    • ncpride

      I agree, and my hubby also has a beard, albeit a very closely shaved one that he keeps very well groomed. Masculine and sexy.

      • Shawn_thefemale

        Same here. I’ve never seen mine clean shaven in 38 years.

    • Katherine McChesney

      My father wore a Van Dyke. He looked very sophisticated.

    • tech

      Yes, they can be very attractive.

  • David Ashton

    Black men have less body hair than white men.

    • Steven Bannister

      They also have less brain cells…

  • Spartacus

    Does this apply to non-Americans as well ? If so, I’m totally growing a beard.

    • Diana Moon Glampers

      The historical look for Romanian men is a large mustache, but a neatly trimmed beard is an excellent modern adaption in my opinion.

  • TheAntidote

    In the good old bad old days blacks were also entrusted with all the hairdressing in the country. One such black hairburner from Haiti is on track to become a saint of the Catholic Church (Pierre Touissant). I can’t understand why anyone, let alone an historian, would believe it remarkable that blacks became barbers and hairdressers. Can anyone plainly see that even in 2014 they are completely obsessed with dey hur? That they spend millions on wigs, pomades, straighteners, weaves, etc?
    Blacks also dominated other jobs long associated with domestic service or slavery: waitering, cooking, and nursing. They were not displaced by politics or racial issues but by economic forces. They had a monopoly offering an inferior product, and they were displaced by immigrants who did a cheaper and better job.

  • LovelyNordicHeidi

    “In these wide-ranging articles, pro-beard polemicists argued that the beard represented a rugged and robust ideal of manhood, proving white Americans’ dominion over “lesser” men and “inferior” races. The pseudonymous “Lynn Bard,” for instance, claimed that men took up shaving “when they began to be effeminate, or when they became slaves.””

    Every White man should have a beard again! You heard Lynn Bard!

  • pcmustgo

    Beard is a gay codeword….I mean, it can be…. a “beard” is a woman the gay man marries or uses to appear straight.

    • Anglokraut

      I’ve been a beard at least once, and perhaps twice, in that case. Glad those days are over.

      • I’m conflicted, I want to ask and I don’t want to know at the same time.

        • Anglokraut

          It’s over. The first one had no doubt–that guy said he met a guy at work, and he really wanted to see if it could go anywhere, and I would distract him. The second time really hurt because I suspected, but I couldn’t prove. That person works in a field that rewards homosexuality, and I never said anything because I really did love him, but I knew I was holding him back professionally.

          Now I’m with a great guy who is really, really not gay; I’m pretty happy about that.

          • I’m glad it’s all worked out for your now.

    • Steven Bannister

      Yes, I recently learned that phrase when I heard a lesbian call another lesbian someone’s “beard.”

  • DaveMed

    It was a slow news day at The Atlantic, apparently.

  • Luca

    This reads like a drug-induced fantasy.

    • So CAL Snowman

      More like a bad trip

  • Andy

    The “advent” of the beard?

  • middle Eastern Muslims, too.

    • Kenner

      Angry feminists.

  • So CAL Snowman

    Obama has a beard, we call it Michelle.

  • MekongDelta69

    The Atlantic is a far left loony rag. mag (as if you couldn’t have figured that out).

    • Kenner

      The Atlantic used to be a premier mag for straight talk on controversial subjects, and that was only about 5 years ago. Now, it’s another propaganda tool.

  • bigone4u

    OK class, raise your hand if you’re a white male who ever thought about having your hair cut by a black barber. Anyone? Anyone? Anyone? …

    • r j p

      The whole story sounds made up.

  • Funruffian

    Frederick Douglass’ Paper: “To shave half a dozen faces in the morning and sleep or play the guitar in the afternoon–all this may be easy, but is it noble, is it manly, and does it improve and elevate us?”
    Who cares? If you are good at your vocation, enjoy customers, have repeatable business and deliver quality service then I would say you are noble. Manly? Again. Who cares? You are providing a much needed service and if you are skilled at it you should be elevated to a status of good character. What was with these abolitionists where they felt the need to indoctrinate their own people into a mindset that was unnatural to them? I doubt any of them had the aptitude or desire to become lawyers, doctors or engineers in that era.
    You gain more respect by fulfilling your potential, not by overextending yourself into difficult boundaries where you are not qualified.

    • Pelagian

      I just find it strange an African-American leader giving a sh%$ about whether something is “manly” or not. Usually that’s not an issue they care about. Vir</emp.tue is not something prized. Bravo, for Frederik Douglas. PS … has there ever been a black man since him named "Fred"? I cannot think of one. Cha-ching … we just found the ubblackest name in the Boys' Names book. Even Pelagian sounds more black: "Pelagian Jackson! Git yo a$$ in herr now".

    • NeanderthalDNA

      I prefer your old avatar…

      Still gave ya a thumbs up.

      • Funruffian

        Why do you like the old avatar? Tell me, Neando! Give me details.

        • NeanderthalDNA

          Oh dear…probably not an appropriate topic for here. I’ll take perfection over obamanation any day.

          • Erasmus

            Where does Michelle Obama fit in on this discussion about beards?

  • Flanders21

    These fears were made powerfully manifest in American fiction, where the
    figure of the murderous black barber became a fixture during the 19th

    little-known 1847 vignette entitled “A Narrow Escape…

    better-known works of fiction, including Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno

    The results of these fears were dramatic

    This is an excellent educational and informative article how the modern mass media shape the thoughts of the masses…the fear that the mass media has shaped today in the minds of the masses is a million times more dramatic to the White race today which is leading to the dispossession and race replacement of Whites globally in every former White homogeneous country . The White race is promoted today as the face of evil not only in MSM but in Academia as well–24/7 non-stop.It has resulted in robbery ,rapes,& murders of Whites,from the very young to the very elderly and handicapped Whites.

    I am a racist with or without my beard. All of us are.

  • Anglokraut

    Does not explain Jay Carney, though it was hilarious to watch him try.

  • LACounty

    I have about a 5″ beard so I’m officially a racist. I’ll shave when we start enforcing existing immigration laws, or when it dips into my soup bowl, whichever comes first.

  • authorizedversion .

    Beardless and womanish were words used to insult a man by the men who spoke Old Norse.

    • Sangraal

      As was ‘practitioner of witchcraft/girly magic’ (‘Seidr’, as opposed to ‘Galdr’, the masculine magic).

  • NM156

    Like this guy…xD

  • humura

    Two points, though I may be wrong on both. 1) As I recall, the barber is also where a man would go to have a bath. That may have been only on rare occasions. I think barbers also performed some medical services.
    2) What effect did the Civil War have on grooming? Large numbers of men were in the armies, and there were fewer women nearby for whom they had to be smooth-shaven. More important than keeping a razor in top condition, one had to keep the weapons ready to fire. The war may have encouraged the new bearded generation.

  • The Final Solution

    Real men grow facial hair. My dad always had a mustache or beard ever since I can remember – I’ve never seen him clean shaved. I’ve been growing a stache and goatie since I was around 20-21. It’s what separates the white Viking conquerors and Germanic and Celtic tribes from the weak Asian hordes. Bearded men governed the public realm and the battlefields as well as the home and family. The beard has been a symbol of status for thousands of years. Not surprising at all that the primitive and easily conquered Zulus became stewards of the white man’s beard. Shine those shoes, trim that beard, dance that jig.

  • IstvanIN

    This so stupid. Right now I am growing a beard, not as a political statement, but because it is easier and quicker to shave my neck alone in the morning, as opposed to my whole face. When I was younger I did it for a new look. In middleage sometimes to hide a double chin. Whether for fashion or laziness I never did it for a statement of white supremacy. The stupid things people can make a living off of.

  • gemjunior

    So dey always was obsessin’ about dey nappy heeids. Lawdy lawdy. Dat is where dey talent lies.

  • Pelagian

    1) Another racial angle: Asians.. I have a young friend who recently returned from Japan. He grew a modest beard (what we might even call “scraggly”) before he arrived and found the Japanese had a strange obeisance to men with beards (white men of course), offering him seats on the subway, thanking him for merely speaking to them, etc.
    2) Advice: Gray beards don’t work unless they have the black at the bottom. Therefore if you are starting to go even minutely gray, hurry up and grow your Karl Marx beard now while the black hairs are still attached to the white ones.

  • antiquesunlight

    I can’t grow a beard. Dang.

  • Lagerstrom

    That’s ZZ Top man…

  • r j p

    What looks really doofus hipster is the guy with a beard than a different hair color than his head hair. Not talking white/grey, the blonde or brown hair guy with the flaming red beard.

    • Anglokraut

      That happened to my older brother when he was in college. He came home at the semester break with a goatee, but it was red, and his hair is a mousy brown.

  • Truth Teller

    Next issue, women’s eyebrow plucking: a potent symbol of White supremacy and oppression of blacks.

  • LHathaway

    They’ve written poor whites out of existence in this ‘historiography’. In truth, it’s where most of this ‘racism’ against blacks has come from. Rich whites have always loved blacks. It seems our history will die before we even die, rich and poor.

  • Martel

    “The laws of white supremacy—both written and unwritten—effectively
    forbade men of color from giving orders to customers or physically
    restraining them”

    So thats why black employees are so “customer-friendly”. Only racist whites don’t take orders when they go shopping.